Hyrum man pleads guilty to beating California woman to death

Stacy Robert Willis, right, stands next to his lawyer Shannon Demler, on Wednesday in Logan, while entering a guilty plea of murder, for killing Merrilee Cox-Lafferty in Blacksmith Fork Canyon in 2018. (Eli Lucero/Court Pool via AP)

LOGAN — A 41-year-old Hyrum man has admitted to “accidentally killing” a California woman last summer and hiding her body east of Hyrum. Stacy R. Willis confessed to murder and will likely face at least 15-years in prison.

Police arrested Willis September 14 after finding Merrilee Cox-Lafferty’s body in a make-shift grave, at a campground eight-miles up Blacksmith Fork Canyon. Evidence showed he had beaten her to death August 18, and buried her body in a rocky area, under a tree.

Willis appeared in 1st District Court Wednesday morning for a preliminary hearing. After attorneys met privately for almost an hour, the defendant waived his right to the hearing and accepted a plea deal. As part of the agreement, Willis pleaded guilty to a reduced count of murder, a first-degree felony. The eight remaining charges were dropped by prosecutors.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Shannon Demler explained that he and Mike McGinnis, assigned co-council, had been evaluating the facts of the case during the past four months. He said, Willis always knew that he had done wrong and would have to take responsibility for what happened.

He didn’t take her up Blacksmith Fork Canyon, intending to kill her when he went up there,” Demler said. “There is allegations that they got into an argument and it got out of hand, and she passed away based on the activity that happened in that argument.”

Cox-Lafferty’s family had reported her missing August 21, three days after several witnesses saw her and Willis fighting. The victim had reportedly traveled to the area to help a friend move and meet up with the defendant.

Willis later told a friend about murdering the woman. He described pulling her from his car at the campground after she backed into a tree, breaking the vehicle’s rear-window. He bragged about killing her with “elbow blows.” The defendant later took the friend to the campsite where her body was buried.

Stacy Robert Willis, center, enters the courtroom with his lawyers Shannon Demler, left, and Michael McGinnis on Wednesday in Logan, where Willis pled guilty of murder, for killing Merrilee Cox-Lafferty in Blacksmith Fork Canyon in 2018. (Eli Lucero/Court Pool via AP)

Following Wednesday’s hearing, Demler explained that the plea deal keeps Willis from a possible death sentence. It also prevents Cox-Lafferty’s family from having to go through a lengthy trial.

“It is a very serious situation when you are going to enter a plea to something that carries a 15-year-to-life sentence. Willis knows he has to accept responsibility for what he did but he also knows the seriousness of entering a plea to a charge such as this. There has been a lot of discussion about that, making sure he understood what the ramifications would be of the plea.”

Willis spoke only briefly during Wednesday’s hearing, telling the court he understood the right’s he was giving up by pleading guilty. Most of the time, he stared forward and showed no emotion.

Judge Kevin Allen scheduled sentencing for March 11. He ordered Willis to undergo a pre-sentence report, detailing his criminal history that will be compiled by probation officers.

Willis was recently released from prison, after pleading guilty to shooting at a couple outside the North Logan Walmart in July 2014.


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  • Tana January 23, 2019 at 4:31 pm Reply

    I am his ex-wife. He should be in prison for life. His violent path will not stop unless someone stops it. Being in prison for life is safer for everyone.

  • Josh January 24, 2019 at 12:33 am Reply

    Have you done any time in prison yourself? There is nothing right about anyone doing life for mistakes they have made if they are capable of change!

    • Reality Check January 24, 2019 at 10:43 pm Reply

      So you would say that this persons capable of change?
      “Willis was recently released from prison, after pleading guilty to shooting at a couple outside the North Logan Walmart in July 2014.”

      Look at what his ex-wife & friend’s wife say & then this…
      “He bragged about killing her with “elbow blows.” The defendant later took the friend to the campsite where her body was buried.”

      And this…
      “Most of the time, he stared forward and showed no emotion.”

      Perhaps you didn’t fully read the article before you commented or you don’t understand the definition of the word “sociopath”
      Mayo Clinic defines it as “A mental health disorder characterized by disregard for other people.”and that “Treatment can help, but this condition can’t be cured.”
      So please do your research before you make ignorant statements, and if you still agree with your comment then you are probably a sociopath also. It’s called basic human decency & you obviously lack it.

      • Kelly January 25, 2019 at 7:11 am Reply

        This was no mistake…was no accident…being beat to death by elbow blows and bragging about it to a friend and having a more than violent past does not seem like a mistake to me. Just saying!!! Justice for Merrilee would be nothing less than life in prison!!!

  • Ali January 24, 2019 at 3:44 pm Reply

    He has lived with my family previously and has done horrific things to me after my soon to be ex husband moved out he is a violent person with no remorse for things he has done. I’m sad that our justice system sucks so bad they would make a plea deal on this!!!!!

  • Katie January 24, 2019 at 10:31 pm Reply

    He can’t change. He has no emotions for what he did. He deserves the chair. My sister didn’t deserve to be killed. Her kids and grand baby didnt deserve this. She loved him to the moon and back and accepted all his flaws. 15 years isn’t long enough. He deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life.

    • Tana January 27, 2019 at 11:59 am Reply

      I am so very sorry for what happened, I feel guilty every day that I survived the abuse and she didn’t. No one deserves to be abused or killed by someone they love. I hope you and your family are able to find some semblance of peace.

  • Justen Christensen January 24, 2019 at 10:45 pm Reply

    No, I myself do not feel satisfaction . There is much more involved than just one sympathetic argument here. Someone has to know that. You see people and their desensitiesed acceptance of new standards and normalities coupled with personal, disruptive, and violent historical records, add up to violent endings. They do not experience a regression back to innocence. Once the dog has tasted blood…

    Merrilee was unique in that she demanded she not be used and abused by the people in her life she dared to show affection. This was what happened to her for seeking acceptance and to be loved as well as for helping a degenerative, unable, accidental most likely, and simplistic human stain on society.

    Humanity took a bite out of itself with this one.
    Good luck to you all being the people you used to be.

    Normal is different now!

  • Chelsey Walters January 25, 2019 at 10:12 am Reply

    I am completely appalled if this man is only serving 15 years.there in literally Blackman in prison serving more time for f****** weed charges. this man killed a woman with his bare f****** hands. And then bragged about it. Making jokes about how easy it was. Honestly I wish they just wouldn’t have sent him to jail and let us deal with it. I don’t believe in our justice system or government it fails us over and over again. Pulling us into a false sense of safety and security putting Petty criminals away ruining their f****** lives meanwhile giving f****** worthless pieces of disgusting trash like this the option to walk away after 15 years and just move on with his life. Completely putting so many others at risk…. This is shameful!

  • Janette January 25, 2019 at 10:29 am Reply

    This makes me sick to my stomach this POS should live the rest of his life in prison he has no remorse . he should be beaten the same way he did to her . I cant even . I just can’t

  • Janette January 25, 2019 at 10:33 am Reply

    This POS should spend the rest of his life in prison or beat to death . he has no remorse for what he did . this is not justice for the family and loved ones this makes me sick to my stomach . I just can’t

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